The sky rained with millet and the ghosts wailed in the night : an anthropological study of Chinese calligraphy
This thesis accounts for the social power of calligraphy in China. It begins by examining the phenomena of widespread public calligraphy and inscription. I investigate three dimensions of Chinese calligraphy - as written characters, as handwriting and as an art form. I examine both the popular view of writing, and the theological view of calligraphic experts. The main points of my argument are: 1. Handwriting is considered an extension of the body-person (shen), which makes it a suitable candidate for the Chinese love of reading 'signs' from bodily forms. As a result, handwriting is treated as revelatory of the inner self. 2. The process of learning calligraphy as a 'technique of the body' constitutes an important element in Chinese embodiment. The techniques of the brush create the type of body-person that is classified as a literati. 3. One key chapter in the dissertation focuses on Bloch's criticism of Goody's 'literacy thesis' - that better means of writing transmit knowledge more effectively. To show the fallacy of Goody's assumption, Bloch resorts to the common view of ideograms - Chinese written characters are the repository of knowledge, rather than a mere means of communication. However, analysis of material from the fields of linguistics and the modern Chinese script reform shows that Bloch's assumption is a myth. Notwithstanding, it is a myth embraced by the Chinese themselves. In this folk understanding, written characters are indeed believed to contain in themselves profound information. 4. To disenchant Chinese calligraphy, the relationship between writing techniques and magic is analysed. This explains the phenomenon of 'magical' writings by political leaders. Moreover, writing is also the way socio-political power speaks. This has undoubtedly helped to sustain calligraphy's halo. However, the power of calligraphy cannot be truly understood unless one sees calligraphy - a culturally enriched and empowered category of artefact/artwork - as an active social actor with agency of its own.